Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Evergreen: So Much Stranger than That

I’m a professor at Evergreen State College, currently on leave.  Last year I lived through the events that were captured on videotape and brought the college a lot of unwanted publicity.  As a social scientist, long interested in organization theory and social movements, I found the experience grimly fascinating, an extraordinary case study.  In my writing on it, I try to focus on understanding how such things could occur, rather than apportioning blame to specific individuals, which, from what I can see, has been the main sport.

Today I read another post mortem by Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, published in the right wing Washington Examiner.  Disclosure: I know both of them, and I had a positive experience co-teaching for a quarter with Heather several years ago in Evergreen’s environmental masters program.  I’m not socially connected to either of them, and I haven’t had political discussions with them either.  I agree with some of what they say in their latest missive, and disagree with other parts.  Readers of this blog, who are far from the scene and wonder who and what to believe, might find my reactions interesting.

There is an obvious, fundamental point on which the three of us see eye to eye: Evergreen descended into an atmosphere of intimidation, in which the right to speak, no matter how civilly, was openly attacked.  There was a group solidarity logic at work: if you affiliated with one group on campus, you could speak your mind in public and be immune from any scrutiny regarding the tone or logic of your utterances; if you didn’t you were expected to remain silent.  This pressure was felt by faculty and students alike.  It was in this context that disruptive actions by students escalated over many months until they paralyzed the college.  It’s remarkable that it even needs to be said that this situation is intolerable for an institution of higher education.

Personally, I think it is bizarre that Weinstein and Heying would be sent packing by the college under the same terms—the same monetary settlement—as Naima Lowe, whose verbal attacks on her colleagues caused enormous damage to Evergreen.  This is not a verdict of the “which side are you on” sort.  It’s not about whose political views you agree with or who you like or don’t like on a personal level.  Weinstein and Heying had a case against the college, and the college had a case against Lowe.  There wasn’t a shred of symmetry in this situation.

One critical aspect of the Evergreen imbroglio goes unmentioned in the Weinstein-Heying account, the barrage of terrifying, intimately threatening emails that bombarded students and faculty after Bret appeared on Fox News.  The wording in these emails reeked of racism and was often graphic, about specific acts of violence, and some students went into hiding because they couldn’t be sure the hatred was only verbal.  To be clear, I don’t blame Bret for that, at least in this sense: I’m pretty sure it never occurred to him that this would result from coverage by conservative media, and no doubt most of it would have taken place even if he had said “no” to Tucker Carlson.  Still, it’s an important part of the larger story, and if you offer an account of what happened you shouldn’t cherry-pick the parts that support your side.  Speaking for myself, I was appalled by this tsunami of hate, and I didn’t feel it was enough to say, this is just the alt-right being the alt-right.  We are all of us responsible for the predictable consequences of our actions, even if we aren’t the ones carrying them out.

But there is also an aspect of the Evergreen story, in many ways the most important one of all, that I think Weinstein-Heying got wrong.  The way they tell it, a left wing minority made a power play on campus in order to enact a radical, identity-fixated political program, the notorious Equity Plan.  This plan, they say, would have destroyed much of what made Evergreen a vital force in education, and the purpose of the intimidation was to push it through.  They cite one sentence from the plan document that calls for bringing diversity and equity criteria into decisions of what faculty specializations to hire in.  It is the Equity Plan that, in their account, makes the conflict political, a battle over which policies would be adopted by the college.

Now here’s the truly extraordinary thing which, in my view, completely upends the conventional understanding of the Evergreen affair: there was no Equity Plan.  Yes, there was a document, hyped in a truly bizarre manner during the November 2016 “canoe event”, called an Equity Plan.  It ran 38 pages, to a large extent a copy-and-paste job, in which rhetoric from a couple of nationally circulated diversity manuals was cobbled together to make it look like a plan existed or might come to exist at a later date.  To be blunt, there was a need for a document called an Equity Plan, so, in a few hours, something with this title was assembled, but there was no actionable plan for the college—no set of proposed regulations, no budgetary analysis, virtually nothing to endorse or oppose.  (This is a slight exaggeration: the “plan” called for mandatory diversity training, which is a staple of corporate America, and it created a new Vice Presidency for Equity and Inclusion, whose occupant would be tasked with figuring out what her job entailed.)

Moreover, there was no political platform behind the student protests.  Listen, for instance, to the student reading a statement at the disruption of the dedication of Purce Hall; it’s all about feelings of disrespect and fear, but there’s not a single word specifying what the college should do to assuage them.  The students who occupied the administrative wing of the library building in the spring issued (belatedly) a list of demands, but they were mostly either about personalities (a list of faculty and administrators to be fired) or too vague to be a subject for implementation.  At a college whose priorities are tightly constrained by its budget, there was no call for a reallocation of resources to meet the needs of underserved populations.  (This is a call I would have welcomed.)

The weird truth at the heart of what happened at Evergreen is that there was no political content to it.  It was all about group solidarities and symbolism.  If this can be given a left-right interpretation, it only means that politics in the wider society has been trained of all substance.  By continuing to portray the meltdown at the college as political, pinning it on (a portion of) the left, Weinstein-Heying are mischaracterizing it.  This in turn has the effect of reinforcing the tendency to take sides; no doubt many readers of their piece will see it as a defense of moderation in the face of radicalism.  Near the end, for instance, Weinstein-Heying write, “Both positions [left and right] have merit and, despite the frequent tenor of conversations between factions, they are not mutually exclusive. Wisdom is likely to emerge from the tension between these worldviews, uniting good people around the value of a fair system that fosters self-reliance as it distributes opportunity as broadly as possible.”  But the Evergreen meltdown was not about left versus right, institutional fairness versus personal responsibility.  Bret’s challenge, for which he was hounded out of the college, was not to the adoption of a political program that didn’t exist, but to the imposition of a coercive ritual symbolism.  You can be very radical in your politics and take that stand.  In fact, if you’re really interested in changing the world and not just how we talk about it, that’s exactly what you’ll do.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Poland Problem: How A Good Economy Does Not Guarantee A Good Politics

This is personal and professional.  My wife and I have the third edition of our comparative economics textbook now in press at MIT Press.  We have chapters on transition economies, and one is on  the Polish economy.  The standard story is that Poland has been the great success story of transition (now accepted to be over pretty much everywhere for awhile now).  It adopted largely western market capitalist institutions successfully, while avoiding mistakes made by other transition economies.  It avoided dismantling its social safety net.  It was careful about privatizing state-owned enterprises, and in fact continues to have a higher percentage of its output run by them compared to most other such economies, with this tied to its lower rate of corruption than many of them.  While it joined the EU, it avoided giving up its currency, which allowed it to devalue and preserve economic growth even as EU nations fell into recession.

Indeed, the ultimate economic success of Poland came during the Great Recession when it was the only nation that did not go into recession at all, steadily growing even through the pit of 2009.  It was the first Soviet bloc transition nation to come out of its transition recession, with a reasonably functioning parliamentary democracy, and it has outperformed all the rest economically.  In 2007, its president, Lech Kaczynski of the conservative Law and Justice Party, signed the Lisbon Treaty, which allows the EU to enforce judicial independence and other features of western democracy.  Later he would die in a plane crash in Russia, which led to his twin brother, the party's current leader to formulate conspiracy theories that Russia was behind the crash.  A souring of attitudes came over the party as it went into a period out of power.  But Poland would become one of the most respected members of the EU, with a former president, Donald Tusk, now an EU leader.

On returning to power the Law and Justice party has followed a new track, obsessed by conspiracy theories, it has turned against Russians, Muslims, and Jews, but loves Donald Trump as well as the also neo-authoritarian regime of Victor Orban in Hungary (who is pro-Russia in contrast with the Poles).  Both now thumb their noses at the EU and its rules.  The latest for Poland is a new law that allows the government to remove half the judges and otherwise take firm control of the judicial system in a way violating Section 7 of the Lisbon Treaty.  The EU has formally condemned this move under the treaty, with tis setting up a possible loss of voting rights in the EU for Poland.  But the government seems not to care and is more committed to pursuing its nationalistic and authoritarian policies.

An irony of the current situation is that one of the politicians driving the changes. Stanislaw Piotrowicz, was a prosecutor during the period of Communist rule prior to 1989 who helped put dissidents in jail.  The irony here is the extreme anti-communism of the Law and Justice party.

What is mysterious is that there is not some obvious economic crisis or problem that is driving this "populist" political trend.  Again, economic inequality is not high and corruption is low.  The unemployment rate could be lower, but the economy has seen much growth reasonably well distributed, and it is broadly stable without inflation or major control by foreigners, even the hated German neighbors.

That said, one subtle issue of economics may be playing into this, even if it still seems to be secondary.  Moving out of the Soviet bloc into the EU has changed the frame of reference.  Whereas preciously the Poles could see themselves as better off economically than the politically dominating Soviets.  Now they compare themselves to higher income Germany, France, and the UK.  Indeed, an irony of the UK Brexit movement is that a motivating element in it has been anger over immigrant "Polish plumbers" supposedly undercutting good local Brits in the job market. The Poles are going elsewhere than Poland to better themselves economically, and this may well provide a backdrop that supports the current dark political trend.

Barkley Rosser

Friday, December 22, 2017

Catalonia Imitates US Dysfunctional Election

With 98% of the vote counted, reportedly (WaPo today) 52% of the vote in Catalonia has gone for pro-union (with Spain) parties, while 48% has gone for pro-secession parties.  However, apparently the pro-secession parties have won a solid majority in the parliament.  This looks to me like last year's US presidential election, where Trump was elected while losing the popular vote.

I do not know what will happen there, nor do I have some nice neat recommendation for what they should do.  Obviously the province is deeply and sharply and closely split over the secession issue.  This election will not resolve it.  Presumably the new government will push more for independence, but the central government, along with pretty much all of the EU and most of the rest of the world pushing back.

I am on record already expressing my own lack of sympathy for this movement.  They gain credibility when the central government arrests their leaders and sends in police to beat and arrest demonstraters.  But they already have language and educational autonomy.  The main thing they seem to want is not to have their tax monies going to poorer regions of Spain.  In this they resemblr the neo-fascist separatist parties of northern Italy, even as they invoke ant-fascism for their movement based on former Spanish history.  I am not impressed.

I find all this to be sad as I like Catalonia and especially Barcelona.  I worry that like so many other places that were doing well and now are not due to internal conflicts, this could happen there also.

Barkley Rosser

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Black Mirror Big Data Becomes Big Brother In China

And maybe coming soon to the US as well, enough to make Orwell sit up and take notice.

The first show of the 2016 season of the sci fi TV show, "Black Mirror," called "Nosedive," showed a future society where people have overall social scores (1-5) that are constantly being changed based on what they do and who they interact with and how.  Access to many things is based on one's rating.  The female lead has a middling score and wants to raise it by attending wedding of friend with higher rating,  Her efforts to do so lead her to do things that make her rating fall, which then leads it to nosedive as others downrate her and dump her,with her ending up in prison.  While not quite that far gone, a system like this seems to be emerging in China, including the phenomenon of people dumping others whose social rating is falling, thus putting them into such a nosedive.  However, the scores are 350-950, resembling FICO financial ratings used initially by mortgage lenders in the US.

The emerging system is described in a recent Wired article by Mara Hvistendahl (probably Norwegian or Danish) who is currently living in China and has a low rating she has been trying to raise as she is shut out of buying various things due to it,  I suspect part of her low rating is because she is a foreigner, which she never mentions as a possible reason, but her description of how the system works and is being developed jointly by the Chinese government in conjunction with Alibaba through its Alipay system, particularly its Zhima "credit scoring system."  It was initially a commercial system based on what people buy, but using big data goes much further to rate more broadly how people behave and with whom.  Thus a journalist who reported on corruption now has a low rating and cannot do many things.  Tyler Cowen has a link to this in his assorted links for Tuesday the 19th on Marginal Revolution, but I am having trouble linking either to either,

Curiously in yesterday's "China Watch," a pro-Chinese government monthly newspaper that comes with the Washington Post, bragged about parts of this system in two articles.  One entitled "Alibaba credit scorer looks past deposits" reports on how its advanced "risk control" system is bringing in insurance companies  to help businesses avoid not getting paid.  The other, "Recruiters Switch On To Social Media," reports how businesses search for possible employees by looking at their social networks on social media..  The benefits to those who might gain are stressed, but no possible downsides or criticism are mentioned.

Hvistendahl points out that much of this already going on in the US, with all of us being rated constantly by far more entities than we are aware of on grounds we shall never discover. What is missing here so far is a government drive to centralize it and exploit it for broader purposes of political and social control at least for now.

The article concludes with how the system in China is increasingly shifting to using facial recognition systems in all this, with one person she spoke with having experienced false facial recognition.  As it is, the Washington Post itself had a story on Wednesday on the main guy in China developing the system.  There was no mention of failures in it, although there was a brief mention of how privacy activists are concerned about with the spread of ubiquitous public surveillance cameras, something happening in the US as well, if a bit more slowly.

Indeed, George Orwell would be proud.

Barkley Rosser

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Missing Piece in Plans for an All-Electric Vehicle Fleet: Electricity

The New York Times has a piece today on barriers to the replacement of internal combustion-powered vehicles to an all-electric fleet in the United States.  It talks about production costs, the availability of key minerals and the need for a charging station infrastructure, but it oddly passes over the most obvious impediment, at least from the perspective of climate change, the large increase it would require in electrical generating capacity.

If the goal is, at it should be, rapid decarbonization of the economy, conversion to electric powertrains is worth doing only if it results in the replacement of petroleum by renewable energy sources, so lets look at the arithmetic.

According to the latest version of Lawrence Livermore’s invaluable energy spaghetti diagram, 25.7 quads of energy, in the form of petroleum, were used as inputs to the transportation sector.  (A quad is a quadrillion BTUs, approximately the amount of energy in eight billions gallons of gasoline.)  Electric vehicles vary in their efficiency, and there might be improvements on this front in the future, but lets use the common assumption that EV’s are four times as energy efficient as ICV’s; that means we are looking at about 6.4 quads of added electrical demand.

Electricity output in 2016 was 12.6 quads, which implies we would need a bit over 50% more capacity to accommodate an all-electric fleet.  Of course, the actual expansion would be less than this because EV’s could take advantage of off-peak capacity.  Nevertheless, from a decarbonization perspective, the critical constraint is not capacity as such but energy inputs as fuel.  A natural gas plant might be able to put out more electricity over a 24-hour cycle without additional capital investment, but only by burning more gas.  Those with greater expertise than I can summon can tell us how much efficiency we can squeeze from existing and prospective electrical generating technology.

So somewhat more than 50% additional electricity is needed; how much of this can come from non-carbon sources?  The most optimistic scenario is one in which nuclear energy is included in this (non-carbon) mix, so assume the goal is simply to zero out coal and gas.  These two sources currently account for 62% of inputs into the electrical generating sector.  No doubt we can get significant reductions simply through efficiency measures; think of all those electrically-heated buildings leaking energy through poor insulation.  If for convenience we lump together increases in non-carbon inputs and efficiency savings, this would need to total 23.3 quads, the current delivery of coal and gas to US electrical power stations, if the services provided by electricity use were to remain constant.  If a shift to EV’s boosts electrical demand by, say, 40%, the need for renewable sources and efficiency savings would go up to 38.3 quads (23.3 current carbon input plus 15 new input), an increase of almost two-thirds.  It is difficult see how this could be achieved in the space of a generation or so, which is the timescale we face if we are to meet our declared carbon goals.

The bottom line as I see it is that, while a shift to electrical powertrains is necessary if we are to have motorized vehicles in a post-carbon world, realistic scenarios for the electrical sector require a massive shrinkage of the number of such vehicles we’ll be able to operate, at least for the foreseeable future.  This is unfortunate on two counts—it will make it more difficult to sustain living standards across the transition ahead of us, and it will increase the political barriers to getting the job done—but we won’t make it go away by not seeing it for what it is.

Monday, December 18, 2017

From Employer Coverage to Single Payer Health Insurance

This holiday season I’ve heard several tales of woe from working class acquaintances, mostly self-employed, about Obamacare: how they are just above the subsidy cutoff and would rather pay the fine than buy expensive individual policies, or how they are just below and can’t afford to put in more hours per week.  I can understand why there is a lot of disappointment with the Democrats.

So what about single payer?  Along with free public higher ed, it’s supposed to be the leitmotif of the resurgence of the left, with even moderate politicians signing on, or claiming to, to save their skins.  And I’m all for it too.

But a big political obstacle is widespread employer-based health coverage, a benefit that would disappear under a universal system.  As a public employee, I have coverage of this sort myself, and it’s a big part of my overall compensation.  How do we fold the millions with adequate-to-good health plans into a new system financed through taxes?

I have an idea.  As single payer goes into effect, require every employer to publicly report how much it pays in the form of contributions to employee health insurance, documented by its payment record over the past twelve months.  The health care law would then mandate that this sum be returned as added wage payments to employees for some transitional period (such as six months) or the term of the employment contract, whichever is greater.  Ideally the law would specify a reasonably progressive apportionment of this payment across the workforce, such as equal lump sums.  At the end of the transition, wages increases and decreases would fall under the same employment law rules, such as they are, as before.

From the worker’s point of view, there would be no loss under the switch to single-payer, even if existing coverage were gold-plated; it would generate that much more wage income.  To the extent that the new system can reduce America’s bloated medical costs, workers could even come out ahead over time.  From the employer’s perspective it should be revenue expenditure-neutral, and changes in the composition of the compensation package should have little effect on HR.  In principle, then, it ought to address most of the political concern over how we can get from here—a fragmented, employment based health care system with both bright spots and gaping holes—to there.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Corporatizatizing The All-Administrative University

One of the few good things that appears to have happened in the conference committee on the generally awful impending GOP tax bill is that the hits students were going to take have been eliminated.  However, even without that additional burden, college students face costs that are far higher than any other nation and have been rising above inflation rates for decades.  While` students in Denmark actually get paid, costs are closing on $70,000 per year at the most expensive US institutions, with public schools having costs rising more rapidly than in the privates over the last decade, as states have cut public support in the wake of the revenue shortfalls that came with the Great Recession.  This is not likely to be reversed in many states as favorable views of universities among Republicans have fallen from nearly 60% to about 30% (with little change among Dems, still between 55 and 60%).

I would like to focus on a long-running trend that has been known for some time but somehow keeps disappearing from view.  This trend was best presented in the ever more relevant 2011 book by Johns Hopkins poli sci prof, Benjamin Ginsberg, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters.  This rise of an all-powerful professional administration is tied to a corporatization of American academia.  From 1975 to 2005 while student populations rose 56%, faculty increased by 51%, administrators rose 85%, and their professional staffs rose 240%.  Around 2005 the total numbers of admins and staff surpassed that of faculty, with that trend simply continuing.  Admin salaries have risen faster than the other categories. On top of that, even as faculty numbers and salaries have not kept pace, there has also  been the weakening of status and pay arising  from the ongoing steady shift from tenure track faculty to temporary adjuncts who have risen   from 22% of faculty in 1970 to about 50% in 2017.

Ginsberg argues that this rise of administrative bloat has become administrative blight.  While admins claim that corporatization brings efficiencies and flexibility, the evidence looks just the opposite with the ridiculous rise of tuition and fees showing the lie to this claim.  Some argue that the explosion of admins is a response to expanding government mandates, this can explain only a portion of this.  Indeed, Ginsberg documents that admins have increased more at private than at public unis, which looks to be the opposite of what we expect if it were public mandates lying behind this trend.

Rather he poses a "Malthusian" theory whereby admins breed more admins.  Deans breed "deanlets" and "deanlings" or as they are more usually known, ass. deans (some associates and their underling assistants).  At JMU where I am there were precisely zero of these creatures when I arrived 40 years ago.  Now my college alone has three associate deans, and we have had an explosion of colleges, each with their plethoras of deanlets.  We now have assistants to deputy vice provosts, whereas back then two of those layers did not exist.  As it is, many of these people have too little useful to do for their overblown salaries, so they have lots of meetings, which generate initiatives to formulate strategic plans nobody gives a damn about or follows, but developing these is imperative for unis that are becoming efficient by corporatizing.  As it is these deanlets insist on dragging faculty into these horrendously nauseating exercises, even as they make it harder for faculty to teach and do research.

There is much more arising from this trend, but here at the end of this fall semester I think it is worth reminding people of this long building phenomenon, even as so many other matters have gotten lots of media and political attention.  This trend is more damaging and probably harder to overcome.  After all, when the fiscal crises hit, it is the admins who decide which jobs and salaries will be cut or restrained, not the faculty.

Addendum, 12/17:  I shall add a point that Ginsberg makes from his own observation and that I agree with, given how long I have been in and around academia (my late father also having been a professor and even an administrator).  in the "good old days" top admins tended to be more senior faculty with r1easonably distinguished records who had been on campus for a long time and knew the people and place.  Now we have undistinguished professional managers, especially among tose deanlets and others.

Barkley Rosser 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Pope's Long Con

This is an amazing piece of investigative journalism. Whatever you are doing, drop it and listen to the first three episodes. The fourth episode is coming Thursday.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The End Of The "Islamic State."

There are two aspects of this debate, one about the term, "Islamic State," and the other about the its application. So, until about a month ago the entity calling itself " al-Dawla al Islamiyya fi al-Iraq wa al Sham(s)," was claiming to be the most important Muslim political entity in the world, the center of its "Caliphate" which claimed to be the only legitimate and supreme ruler and polltical state for the entire Islamic/Muslim world. As of this moment it remains unclear what the status of the self-proclaimed al-Khalifa, Abu-Bakr al Baghdadi. Rumors have had him dead while others say he remains alive and in charge of the remnants of his group.

Regarding its real world actual existence, well, I am posting this because about a month ago this group lost control of the last good sized town that it controlled, Abu Kamal, reported by the seriously ignorant western media as "Bukamel," about 40,000 in population, a town on the Euphrates River just over the border from Iraq on the Syrian side.  Apparently it now controls no town or city of any size, although supposedly it continues to operate in rural desert areas along the Syria/Iraq border. But as an entity that rules any sort of meaningful government as a "state," well, it has ceased to exist  as that as of the takeover of Abu Kamal by Syrian state forces backed by both Russia and  Iran as well as the US to a lesser degree, and has returned to its earlier roots as a guerrilla rebel movement, not a status as a "state," according to any serious definition of that term.

The second part of this involves mainstream western media.  Somehow somebody in control of these things decided and enforced that what al-Dawla al Islamiyya fi al-Iraq wa al Sham(s) would be known as "officially" in western mainstream media (to be specific the "papers of record," the New York Times and the Washington Post), would be the seriously misleading and ideologically/theocratically inaccurate term, "the Islamic State."

The term "Islamic State" in the eyes of many observers implies that indeed the entity follows the views of a variety of observers or dissidents oppressed,    It is the defining form of a state devoted to Islam; that its claim to represent a universal ruling caliphate of greater Islamic legitimacy in the entire world is correct.  No one knows which media maven decided that this was the term that should be used over all others, including ones used by the western population among themeelves. When even government officials spoke referring this group as the far more popularly used "ISIS," stories in the Washington Post and other such outlets relentlessly corrected such people by adding after their preferred term, "another term used to describe the Islamic State." These official guardians of official truth knew better than the masses, although some who defend their continuing usage even in the face of the collapse of any real rule over a state may have insisted on using this IS formulation over ISIS (or ISIL) because it is shorter and easier to read and understand.

Of course, "ISIS" has long been the most widely popularly used named for this outfit in at least the US, and it is not a bad translation of the Arabic acronym for "al-Dawla al Islamiyya fi al-Iraq wa al Sham(s)"   as "the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria." Calling it just "the Islamic State(IS)" cuts off everything in that name after "Islamiyya" and grants them implicitly their claim to be the one and only true Islamic state in the world, the real caliphate rejevanated since the end of the Ottoman Empire, whose long ruling Sultan claimed the title of Caliph, or "al Khalifa," the true successor of the Prophet Muhammed as the political-religious ruler and leader of the world Umma, the global Islamic community, implicitly even a family given that "Umm" is the word for "mother" in Arabic.

So even now with the end of any remote pretense that this group actually rules anything that can be called a "state" since the fall of Abu Kamal they continue with this incredibly misleading formulation that no identifiable party decided they should use when some official calls them "ISIS," that they are the "Islamic  State," with "ISIS another name used to describe the Islamic State."  I have seen this ridiculous and inaccurate formulation so many times I have lost my capacity to vomit.

Of course we have the minor but more accurate term, "ISIL" based on how to translate "al Sham(s)," which can mean "Syria" or "Greater Syria" or "the Levant," which is essentially Greater Syria, although with fuzzy borders but including certainly Lebanon as well as portions of Turkey, Jordan, and even Israel, "the Levant" being a western term from the French referring to the rising of the sun in the East, or "Near East" at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, an old term used by the English and French dating back a few centuries.  The Obama administration decided to use this "ISIL" as advised from some tiresome academics, although far better informed than the idiot journalists who for no good reason became propagandists for this nauseating entity by insisting that it was and remains "the Islamic State" or "IS."

Needless to say in most of the Arab world and among such well informed parties as Juan Cole, the preferred way to refer to this horrible entity was to Anglicize its Arabic acronym as Da'esh, or just "Daesh."  This how virtually all Arab spokespersons outside of the entity itself referred to it, wininng from the moronic western media the corrective when they did so, "Daesh, another name for the Islamic State," with this indeed having political significance as the Arabic acronym came to be rejected by the entity itself to the point that they killed anybody using it in territories under their control, despite its complete accuracy from the official name.  But these barbaric monsters wanted to be known as the official ruling global  Islamic caliphate, and the western media abetted this absurd and nonsensical and despicable claim on their part against the all-but universal claim among Arabs of the more accurate label, "Daesh."

Official western media may persist in this nonsense now that as even an unrecognized "state" that rules over any unwilling populace of any concentrated population in a city or even good sized town has ceased to exist.  But it is high time they ceased propagandizing for these horrendous criminals and joined Arabs and well informed western observers by calling them "Daesh," or at a minimum stopped correcting those who continue to use the more popularly know term "ISIS" or its slightly more esoteric variation "ISIL" with this now utter nonsense.  There is no longer an organized government ruling any real territory that deserves being called a "state," much less "the Islamic State."  That entity, despite its own demands to be called that, has ceased to exist in any meaningful form and has returned to being a purely guerrilla movement, even as many other groups inspired by it continue to kill people in places such as Nigeria and Yemen in its name.

The "Islamic State" is khalas, over, done, dead, and I do not wish that it Rest in Peace.

Barkley Rosser

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Max Zilch: A New Game for Three People

So for something not economics or politics, my oldest daughter and oldest grandson and I have invented a new game for three people, which we call Max Zilch.  it is a variation on the game known as Zilch or Oh Hell.  in those games, usually played with four people, you start out dealing out one card to each person, then two for the second round and on up.  At each round except the last (which is no trump) next card is turned up and determines trump suit (play is like Bridge).  At each round people bid the number of tricks they think they will take.  If they make their bid, they get 10 points plus the square of the number of tricks they bid.  If they miss either up or down, the lose the square of by how much they missed in points.  Dealer cannot bid amount that would make total tricks taken equal total tricks bid, so dealing moves around.  That is standard Zilch (a zero bid) or with some variation, Oh Hell.

Our variation is to play with three people and simply deal out all  the cards every hand.  There is then always a trump suit with the last card.  It removes the probability calculation over whether cards are out or not, making it more like Bridge.  It is quite challenging with 17 tricks.  We have really enjoyed playing it.  Good for holiday season and family gatherings.

Barkley Rosser

Monday, December 4, 2017

A First Step for Organizing Counterpower from Below

I’ve been posting a lot of critical stuff on gaps and faulty assumptions in the rhetoric and strategy (such as it is) of the US Left.  A reasonable person might say, OK, enough already.  We know what we’re doing isn’t working, but what would?  What’s the alternative?

Good question—I’m glad you asked.  Actually, for about 40+ years I’ve had the same idea, which I’ll now try out on you. 

First, consider the basic conundrum of organizing the Left.  On the one hand, what’s needed is structure on every scale from your neighborhood or workplace to the whole country.  We need to bring the millions of people who share our outlook, in some general sense, into a common organization.  Conservatives will always have more money to draw on; those on the other side have to rely on numbers—and not hypothetical or once-in-a-blue-moon election numbers, but everyday, signed up and available for mobilization numbers.  In other words, the organizational basis for ongoing collective action.

But here’s the thing: the Left has had only flashes of success at this game because it has a powerful tendency to factionalize.  Every time it looks like an organization is getting over the hump it breaks apart.  Why this is so is an interesting question, but I won’t go into it here.  In some ways the dissentious character of the Left is a good thing, since social change is complicated and we need many points of view.  Still, it gets in the way of solving the organizational dilemma, and I will assume this will remain the case.

So how to build a measure of organizational unity on a fractious base?  Scale down the scope of this hypothetical organization in order to scale up across differences in beliefs and strategy.  Imagine an organization with many of the characteristics organizations are supposed to have, like membership rosters, officers, budgets, facilities, and activities, but prohibit it from taking sides in any electoral, legislative or judicial dispute, or promulgate manifestos as an organization.  Make it so there is no political program to fight over, nothing to make members want to quit or drive out those who disagree.  Then allow it to succeed at a more limited role.

And what would this role be?  Above all, it would make visible, countable even, the existence of a massive Left constituency in America.  People would feel differently—they would have more self-confidence and be willing to take bolder action—if they knew they were not alone but part of a movement with millions of supporters.  They could begin to think in “we” terms, where “we” is a fairly well-defined group with game-changing potential.  In addition, such an organization could create opportunities for networking, incubating smaller groups centered on particular issues or ideologies or self-identities, free to be as political as they want, and facilitate media with a wider reach than what we currently have.  It could schedule debates and film series, organize festivals and commemorations, and foster other activities to keep people informed and connected to one another.  It would not do everything—we would still need explicit political organizations to take stands, lobby, organize protests and win elections—but it would be a giant step forward.

The issue of membership is crucial, because it essentially defines what it means to be on the Left.  Here I think the key move is to emphasize values and not means.  What makes someone part of the big family of the Left is not adherence to a particular system of ownership of the means of production or support for any single strategy for social change, but acceptance of democracy, freedom and equality as the primary criteria for valuing any of these.  Wording would be tricky, but I can imagine a short list of core values that the organization would stand for and that joining it would endorse.  It would probably be necessary to make the values binding in the sense that a clear pattern of violating them would be grounds for being denied membership.  White supremacists or other bigots, for instance, should not be permitted to infiltrate, nor others whose underlying philosophy indicates their purpose is disruption or domination rather than collaboration with broadly like-minded activists.

Dues should be kept as low as possible, perhaps on a sliding scale to remove economic status as a condition of membership.  But some payment is needed so that members are making at least a nominal commitment, with self-financing a crucial buffer against external influence.

There should be chapters of this organization at every scale, from a few city blocks to states and the whole country.  Officers would need to be elected to manage funds, coordinate activities, communicate to the media and guarantee the principles of the organization are being followed.  Of course, there should be transparent procedures for recalling officers who prove to be deficient—but again it is crucial that the organization be prohibited from taking sides in any political dispute so that battles over leadership are not about control over political orientation.

A useful alternative to manifestos and official statements of political position would be frequent polling of the membership.  If a reasonable hurdle, such as support from a minimum percent of the organization, could be met, polls would be conducted to convey the range and weight of views.  In this way majorities would not presume to speak for the whole, and minorities would not be silenced, but the existence of both would be acknowledged.

I don’t have all the details figured out.  Above all, I don’t see an obvious solution to the problem of media.  One of the main functions of such an organization should be to stimulate the growth of left-oriented publications and similar outlets.  These would need to be curated, since there is already a superabundance of material directed at those on the Left (and every other political stripe), and there is no point to simply piling on.  At the same time, to select the “best” or “most important” content is to apply judgment over which factions will tend to factionalize.  I don’t see an obvious solution.

The general principle is that what we need to do, what we always need to do, is take the next step.  The step must be large enough to be worth taking, but not much more than that, since if we succeed we’ll be in a better place to take another step, and then another.

Has Dean Baker Joined Team Republican?

The dishonesty ab out the Trump tax cut for the rich from certain Republican leading conservatives are been extensively noted so let’s not go there. But why is Dean Baker writing this?
There are two ways in which we can say that a deficit/debt is will hurt our children. The first is by slowing economic growth and therefore making the economy and our kids less wealthy in the future than they otherwise would be. The route through which this is supposed to happen is that deficit pushes up interest rates and crowds out investment, thereby slowing productivity growth. (We can also see a rise in the value of the dollar, which means larger trade deficits and more foreign debt.) There are no projections that show any substantial negative effect in this way. In fact, most projections show at least a modest positive boost to growth. So this one doesn't make any sense.
There are no projections that the Trump tax cuts for the rich will lower national savings? If not, there should be. We tried this back in 1981 and what was the result? A massive increase in real interest rates and a massive appreciation of the dollar. The former did crowd out investment and the latter did lead to large trade deficits. I’m sure Dean remembers this. I would assert that the proposed tax cut today is a lot like the 1981 tax cut. If Dean disagrees – might he tell us why.

The Great Awokening

There’s a theory about the sins and shortcomings of society: they are all due to our failures of consciousness.  If people were purer, given to understanding and following the true path, the problems of this world would cease to exist.  According to this view, poverty and inequality are the result of greed, wars occur because people fail to see the humanity in the “enemy”, and bigotry feeds on fear and ignorance.  The solution is to cleanse our consciousness and achieve enlightenment.  This is the way of religion, which has endeavored to perfect the world for thousands of years, with mixed results.

I’d like to think a more promising approach is to identify the structures in society—the laws, customs, institutions, and rules—that are responsible for these problems and change them.  This is the way of politics, preferably informed by deliberation and experience.  From a political perspective, trying to change people’s consciousness has some value as an end, but it is mainly important as a means, part of building a movement for collective action.

What I sense is that, for many on what considers itself the left, politics in the sense of the previous paragraph is a delusion, a repeating nightmare that one can only awake from, not transform.  Instead, passionate energy is funneled into demanding changes in language, personal behavior and conceptions of one’s identity.  Done right, that’s worth doing—better consciousness and behavior is better for all of us—but not as a substitute for politics.  And if you take politics seriously, battles over culture and consciousness should be strategic, taking into consideration how they can best contribute to collective action.

As I’ve tried to imply in my subtler moments, the biggest, hugest, screamingest problem we face is a grotesque imbalance of power, and amid all the chatter over policy, investigations and reports, and cultural struggles, hardly any work is going into the organizing we need to build a counterpower to that of the Right.  My fearless prediction is that, unless power is rebalanced, no accumulation of evidence, clever policy idea or righteous act of cultural subversion is going to make a damned bit of difference.

(Night thoughts on reading “The Koch Network and Republican Party Extremism” by Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez.  Image credit: Venngage.)

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Is Bitcoin A Speculative Bubble?

There are at least two definitions of a speculative bubble.  The first, and most widely accepted, is that it involves a price of an asset that rises substantially above its fundamental and then falls back towards that fundamental.  The other, not necessarily all that clearly distinguishable from the former, involves an asset price that rises due to people buying due to an expectation that they will get a capital gain from its expected future price rise, with this then happening due to a self-fulfilling prophecy, with eventually the price falling sharply, with this not necessarily involving a fall towards a fundamental because the asset may have no fundamental at all.

I note before proceeding futher that there is an enormous debate and literature on identifying fundamentals at all, even when they might theoretically exist.  There is a serious body of opinion dating from Flood and Garber a quarter of a century ago that one cannot identify them econometrically ("Tulipmania").  This has been shown to be false by me and many others in various papers, including particularly on closed-end funds where the net asset value of the fund minus taxes and fees is a fundamental, and when those soar to twice the value of the underlying net asset value, well, we are looking at a bubble. The lit is there and decisive.  I asked Garber to comment on a paper presented a long time ago at a conference on this point, but the chicken shit did not show up to admit that he was just plain wrong.  He had no legitimate excuse for his absence.

Of course Bob Shiller has made pretty reliable estimates regarding housing prices based on price to rent and price to income ratios.  His studies of these by 2005 were pretty decisive to anybody who was remotely paying attention (including at the Fed, Janet Yellen, the only one there to take this seriously at the time), that the US housing market was in a serious bubble that was going to crash big time.  The matter of forecasting how bad it would get with the Great Recession became a matter of who had figured out how deeply the financing for all that had gotten involved in world financial markets at a fundamental level, and very few did figure that out.

But then there are assets that have no fundamental at all, even theoretically, quite aside from all the horrendous econometric identification problems pointed out by such serious people as Jim Hamilton, for whom I have the deepest respect. The question for cryptocurrencies in general is whether they have a fundamental, and it may well be that they do not. If that is the case, then only the second definition of a speculative bubble may be relevant, and that is much harder to determine than the former, already admittedly a difficult matter.

How might bitcoin have a fundamental?  One reason might be for its use as a medium of exchange.  However, while it is certainly being used as that, for regular commodity transactions as of now it remains as a sometimes difficult alternative to cash dollars.  As near as I know there are no regular commodity transactions in the real economy that require it.  So, it may have no fundamental, and from what I have heard, this is widely accepted among the more sophisticated bitcoin traders.  This would make it like art, such as the recent sale for $450 million of the possibly faked "Salvator Mundi" supposedly by Leonardo da Vinci.  And, of course, there is good old gold that has a long had a value as a store of wealth about an order of magnitude above its likely strictly commercial fundamental value.

However, it may be that bitcoin has a fundamental value above zero, if wildly fluctuating and hard to estimate, far beyond the econometric difficulties identified by people such as Hamilton, much less Flood and Garber.  It is that to buy most of the other cryptocurrencies one must use bitcoins to do so.  Oh, this is really a gas.  The fundamental for one asset is based on its ability to purchase even more lacking in fundamentals and totally speculative assets one must own it.  Wow.

Thus we have that any real fundamental for bitcoin is a derived demand for any among the vast universe of other cryptocurrencies, and we should keep in mind that bitcoin itself is horrendously inefficient compared to others because of its accelererating and already very large "mining" costs.  As near as I can tell there are only two other cryptocurrencies that have any relation to the real world out of the multitude of crytpos. They are ethereum and ripple.  The first has been a matter of much speculation itself, given its potential for writing contracts, giving it a serious possibility of much longer use and actual usefulness in the real world.  This may yet occur, although for its future it would probably be better for it if it could be bought directly with cash/dollars from the real world rather than having to use the horribly socially inefficient bitcoin, a bad example of first mover advantage, or perhaps the ultimate proof that the first mover should be sent to last.

Which gets us to the quiet and most obscure member of the crypto world, ripple.  This cryptocurrency, which is the hardest to buy of them all, is probably the one with the most serious actual real world use, and thus possibly providing a real foundation for bitcoin to have a fundamental, although I confess at this point that I am not certain to what degree purchasing it does rely on using bitcoins.  I know that as of fairly recently one had to use bitcoins to buy ethereum, but I am not sure about ripple, which moves with bitcoin, but probably more weakly than any other of all the cryptocurrencies.

The source of its value is that has been adopted by a significant number of banks for their interbank transactions.  This now appears to be firmly established, not to go away whatever happens to bitcoin or any of the other cryptocurrencies.  Indeed, the underlying idea of blockchains is clearly a brilliant and useful forward movement in managing financial and economic transactions, assuming that is managed in a reasonable and efficient manner, without me remotely dealing with issues of transparency or legality.  But it seems that at least some banks have decided to use ripple, which I understand uses a more efficient mining technology.

So, there may well be a fundamental for bitcoin, despite what I understand to be the current consensus among smartass bitcoin traders.  But, of course, that fundie is probably way below the current price, as if that matters at all.

Barkley Rosser

Addendum, 12/2:  This has been picked up by Naked Capitalism where some commentators have pointed out that apparently one no longer needs bitcoin to buy other cryptocurrencies, especially ripple and etherium.  If anything it is etherium that is being used to buy other cryptos.  In any case, that reduces the case for bitcoin having a fundamental greater than zero.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Flynn Bails, but Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

I haven’t seen anything yet to convince me that the Putin-Trump collaboration was a big deal.  Ugly and unprincipled, sure, but politically consequential, probably not.

A contrary view, expressed by Harry Litman in today’s New York Times, is that this is the beginning of the end for the Trumpster.  The evidence is accumulating that, between his election in November of last year and his inauguration on January 20 of this one, Trump and his inner coterie worked back channels to undermine Obama’s foreign policy.  Litman characterizes these efforts as “abuses of power arguably well beyond those in the Watergate and Iran-contra affairs.”  He further sees the possibility that Trump will be cited for obstruction of justice in his attempts to keep these activities secret.

I’m not convinced.  On the face of it, Trump intervening in foreign policy after his election is less condemnable than Nixon’s secret disruption of a Vietnam peace deal during the 1968 campaign.  The Nixon escapade was an open secret almost from the beginning, and he got away with it.  Iran-Contra was nasty stuff, but Reagan made it through intact, as did his Nicaragua policy, and even the underlings caught red-handed survived and prospered.

But let’s not compare Trump to Nixon and Reagan; that just shows how old some of us are.  Let’s speculate on the political fallout from a potential prosecutor’s report that Trump cut deals with Putin before taking office.  Litman says this is something “that nobody on either side of the aisle could possibly defend.”  Why not?  What happens if the Republicans in the House and Senate say, hey, it’s just a bureaucratic detail, since he was already elected?  And why wouldn’t they say this?  How would that be any more outrageous than anything else they’ve said or done in recent memory?  Who would stop them?

The “who would stop them” thing is what it’s all about.  Modern movement conservatism is about winning, period.  To worry about honesty, consistency or any other check on your political options is to be a loser.  This is why we hear made-up stories about the effect of taxes and voter fraud laws, when the ones promulgating them know they’re false and know you and I know they’re false.  They don’t care, except about winning, which they’ve become good at.  Give me a scenario in which the Republican congressional establishment shrugs off a report against Trump, and some other force pushes Trump out anyway.  Oh right, there will be editorials in the New York Times screaming bloody murder; that should do it.

Trump is not invulnerable, and scandal may drag him down, but it won’t be over points of law that matter only to people who believe in the rule of law.  The 2018 election could change that, but only if it breaks a lot bluer than currently expected.  A damning report against Trump could influence the vote, but only if it appears in the last week or two of the campaign, before tribal cohesion reestablishes itself.

The underlying problem with the Times piece and similar obsessions with the l’Affaire Russe is that they are based on the belief that what we need is some additional bit of evidence—of foreign meddling, the effect of tax cuts on inequality and revenues, the impact of climate change on storms or our coastline, something the Right “can’t ignore”—to turn things around, but it won’t.  What our side needs is not more evidence but more power.  This is not to defend unscrupulousness—we do want to be on the side of the evidence—but simply to recognize the true deficit we face.